I was born at North York General Hospital in North York, ON, which makes me a Canadian, but my heart is divided. You see, my family (both sides, I'm purebred) hail from the small Baltic country of Estonia. My Grandparents left their families and fled the country (as teenagers/young adults) under cover of darkness with Soviet Troops bent on preventing their escape. You see Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union. If you were caught with an Estonian flag, you'd be shipped off to Siberia. If you wore the colours of the Estonian Flag (Blue, Black and White) you could be shipped off to Siberia, killed, or both. If you tried to escape and were caught, you'd be shipped off to the camps in Siberia. People living in Estonia were no longer free to be Estonians, they were Soviets.
As a kid, I remember going to Estonian school on Saturday mornings in Toronto, and I hated it. I didn't want to be Estonian. I didn't want to give up my Saturdays to learn to speak this weird language, I wanted to play with my friends. I learned Estonian before learning English, so I had a weird accent. It was a rough time for me. I wanted to be normal, like everyone else in school. Well, those trips to the Eesti Maja on Broadview paid off some 10-15 years later.
In 1998 I had the opportunity to go to Estonia on a missions trip with my youth group. It turned out to be a trip that changed my life in so many ways. Estonia had obtained it's freedom from Soviet rule by this point, and the USSR had crumbled. But there was still evidence of 80 years of Soviet rule. The team stayed at a Bible College just outside Estonia's capital, Tallinn, in a town called "Suurupi". Suurupi used to be the home to a Soviet submarine base, which was now where the Bible College was located. I was like a kid in a candy store. We had a couple days of training before we'd get begin our ministry, so I did a lot of exploring in our free time. I grabbed a couple guys and we explored the damp, underground tunnels. We
rummaged through old crates looking for ammunition or weapons (we didn't find any). We pretended to lock each other up in the holding cells. It was a blast.
One morning during our "quiet time" I walked out to one of the cliffs overlooking the Baltic sea. It was early in the morning, and the sea was really rough. Whitecaps crashing crashing into the jagged cliff face, the sea roaring like a monster woken from its thousand year sleep, the wind blowing up the cliff face and a shotgun blast of mist hitting me in the face. As I sat down and looked over the turbulent waters, the stories I had heard from my grandparents came rushing back to my mind.
They had set out on this same sea in boats, hoping to escape undetected, to safety in Sweden. The story had suddenly morphed in my mind. They didn't sail off on a glassy day on Lake Ontario, they didn't head to Sweden in a 50 foot yacht, it wasn't a nice sunny summer day. The set off in a 10 foot aluminum boat, on rough seas, under cover of darkness, maybe with Soviet searchlights buzzing around them and enemy planes flying overhead. (I took some artistic license) Were they crazy!?!?
They left Estonia, somehow made it to Sweden, spent time in a P.O.W. camp, and then got on another boat and came to Canada with nothing. Literally nothing. A number of them settled in Toronto, somehow managed to build a life, (not knowing the language), and raised a family. Wow!
After our couple days training on the base/Bible College, we set out for Tallinn and began doing dramas and serving at tent services in the park. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (no showers, super hot and sweaty, no deodorant). A couple days in it hit me; (like B-O on a packed bus in summer) I was the only one on the team that could communicate with these people! Those Saturday mornings were good for something!
I've been on 4 missions trips to Estonia, all amazing experiences, and each time it seems my heart for the land my grandparents left so long ago seems to grow.
A couple years ago I was asked to play on the Estonian Hockey team in the Baltic Cup, a yearly tournament between the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. I cannot explain to you the feeling of putting on a jersey with the Estonian crest across the front. To wear that jersey was (and still is) such an amazing feeling.
There was a film that came out around the same time as my debut on the Estonian hockey team called The Singing Revolution. It's a documentary about the non-violent revolution in Estonia where thousands of Estonians gathered in an effort to end years of Soviet occupation. Crystal and I went to the premiere screening at the cinesphere in Toronto, and after seeing the film, I can honestly say I have never been more proud to be Estonian. Crystal, who had very little knowledge of Estonia's past, left with a new understanding of why I'm so proud to be an "Esto."
Don't get me wrong, I love Canada, I am proud to be Canadian, but there is a part of me that loves being that weird kid with an accent that goes to Estonian school on Saturdays.
Eestlane olen ja eestlaseks jään